Friday, March 25, 2016

The Aging Body, With Grace

The human body is intended to be an imperfect thing.

Try as we might to fend off our decline with exercise and diet, the returns on those investments of time, energy and discipline eventually cease to pay off.  There is a commitment to extend our mortality farther than generations who never had the medical care or the knowledge of nutrition and fitness that we do.  At the same time, however, those generations lived active, even vigorous, lives that may have been dedicated to nothing more than ensuring that they were able to get through each day with some modicum of comfort and security.

If those "unfortunate" ancestors were to look our lives and regard our desk-bound routines, and their complementary mechanical repetitions on the medieval torture contraptions of the fitness clubs, they would be perplexed by that dis-integration of purposeful activity into these separate streams of routine that may leave us wondering what it is all about.  With the gym club regimens and their ancillaries driven in part by the entirely unparented bastard of body image standards, we have indulged in cosmetic surgery to an extent that we outwardly ridicule but to a lesser extent accept and
consider more often than we would care to admit.  Botox and nose jobs have been standing punchlines, but the embrace of our unrealistic expectations about the body has not loosened.

We all too quietly murmur approval of famous people, okay, actresses who age without the surgical or chemical interventions to stave off age and retain marketability at the cost of a beauty that is undeniably under-appreciated for the glow and warmth that comes with acceptance of the vessel we have been given and has not be moderated by a surgeon of some renown.  It is that type of beauty that prompted Brad Pitt to regard Dianne Wiest, without any trace of irony, as "the most beautiful woman on the screen."

We continue to lose to muted ambivalence on the matter of body image, but we are more inclined to make a bit of a battle of late to reconsider that.  There is a shift occurring and even if I acknowledge that it occurs only at the most glacial of rates, I risk being naive about something that may only be a blip or a cynical marketing ploy.

The other aspect to consider in light of the aging of the body is its decline and ultimate failure.  With this and with dying, there is a more primal desire to extend our lives as much as possible.  Life expectancy is continuing to increase. We embrace the news of further improvements with, at the very least, relief.  A few years ago a friend had basically said, "75," indicating that was about as much time as she needed or wanted to live and anything beyond that would not be necessary.  It was a startling thing to hear and I would still anticipate a change of mind as that figure drew nearer.

There is, upon reflection, a degree of wisdom in that disdain for an exceptional degree of longevity. Immortality is not in reach and when and if it is achieved there would likely be something of the plastic pallor or hermetically sealed lack that would be visible to the eye, but ineffable and beyond words.  In the meantime, the pursuit of longer life and the conquest of the illnesses that bedevil and haunt us with their final assaults, indignities and metastases currently return us to, once again, diminishing returns.  All too often, the pursuit of extending life at the cost of quality of life leaves us with something hollow.

The insistence that the body must be sustained in the face of the passage of time, whether to adhere to an ill-defined, inaccurate definition of beauty or to pursue some measure of longevity at the expense of quality of life merely underlines how society has made itself an audience to the advance of technology rather than an engaged participant in a discussion about the quality or the spiritual richness of life.  In his brilliant book Being Mortal, Atul Gawande outlines the options that we have available to deal with aging and death.  There is a strong impulse amongst many of us to fend off death by all means necessary rather than accept it is a stage of life, the final passage.  Many of us, where prompted to by medical practitioners or not, regard the approach of death as something that must be fought or fended off by whatever means necessary, even by measures that are as extensive an quixotic as the cosmetic interventions we are often inclined to mock.

Such interventions are made at the risk of compromising our experience of this passage and the wisdom and poignancy that comes with the departure.  In his book, Gawande talks about the more heroic efforts to extend life and fend off death as one renders this passage as one that is more mechanical and less interactive than a wise resignation to palliative care in a hospice setting, where pain is managed and meaningful goodbyes are enriched by a full commitment to presence and the simple maxim, "be here now."  An acceptance of death and a abstinence from the technological options of this stage of life would ultimately allow this stage to once again become more unique, peaceful, personal and more, yes, comforting experience than one which is laden with the technology of last gasp efforts.  This stage of life is one that can enrich us when we accept its place in our lives and the lives of those we love and it is a point in life when the technology deadens the senses and prolongs the suffering for the ailing and the survivors.